Being a scientist is hard work. This is something that most people know. However, marine biology has always had an aura of glamour that I assume comes from the fact that we spend a lot of time outside, doing nothing more than swimming and playing with animals, or so the general public assumes. I tend to dismiss these assumptions rather quickly, to distance myself from the slight flakiness that it implies. Swimming with dolphins? Never done it, although I’ve surveyed them from a boat. Diving with sharks? Done it, but the shark was rather far away and not very interested in us. In the interest of making my research sound more serious, I think I occasionally highlight the rougher times and downplay the fact that spending your days outside swimming, while simultaneously accomplishing something, is indeed very pleasant.
One particular day this summer stands out as one where everything just felt perfect. It’s odd, because it was not an outwardly perfect day. The skies were gray, and the water started out a bit choppy in the morning. I was doing my usual surveying routine of snorkeling from site to site, and nothing of note was occurring. What made it so wonderful was a series of sensory experiences that made me realize how much I enjoy what I do.
I was snorkeling along the edge of the marsh when it began to rain. When you’re at the surface of the water it almost rains twice—the drops hit the water and splash upwards, so there are drops of fresh water and salt water intermingling at the air/water interface. The fresh water runs down your face, and although it wouldn’t otherwise taste like anything at all, the absence of salt on your lips makes the mundane tastes foreign. Everything is dripping, and each drop has a different salinity, it seems.
The site I needed to reach was through a narrow channel in the salt marsh. While I examined the maps to determine which of the many creeks emptying into the main water body was the one I wanted, I perched on a lump of peat. Salt marshes are built by years of organic matter piling up, forming a spongy matrix. This supports more grass living on the surface, and after years of dead grasses stacking and water eroding, the marsh forms finely layered cliffs many meters in height. I was sitting on the edge of one of these. The marsh itself was not visible, so it was as if I had been sitting on the surface of the water itself. My colleagues and I chose the best candidate for a creek that continued to the other side, and they left in the boat to meet me around the backside of the marsh island because the boat wouldn’t fit through. I swam up between narrow walls of mud, and the water slowly shallowed. It continued to get shallower until I was fruitlessly attempting to swim in a foot or so of turbid water, crawling over the mud and reenacting the awkward paddling of a primordial creature attempting to move landward. The wonderful thing about this was that the mud was unbelievably smooth and slippery, so I could pull myself forward with my hands and slide. Reach, pull, and slide. Maybe it will get deeper, I told myself. It really didn’t. So, I turned around, and slid out of the creek as if it were a natural Slip-n-Slide.
I guessed that the next creek over might be the one I wanted, as it seemed deeper and wider. The walls were still narrow, but the bottom was carved out by continuous water flow and was easily navigated. There were crabs scuttling along the edges of the marsh, picking at the mud now and then. Above the water, raindrops were clinging to the marsh grass, refracting and magnifying brilliant greens and yellows. The water in the creek was warmer than in the harbor because it was heated by the sun, but along the edges there were cold trickles from within the marsh that swirled across my legs as I kicked past. I did reach the other side, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I was enjoying myself too much.